I presented my Unborn Lovers project as part of a panel discussion at the University of the Arts London’s pilot symposium: the Undergraduate Research Forum. I thought it would be a great venue to practice speaking publicly about some of the more theoretical aspects of my work, so I didn’t hesitate to submit something. There was just about time to talk about this one project alongside talks under the category “Methods and Methodologies” (see video here).
It was haptic, being the first attempt to organise an event of its kind, but charming. A sizeable group had turned up, and on hearing the engaged audience responses and discussions, I was sorry to have missed the first half of the day, tied up as I was in a disastrous MA interview at the Royal College of Art that same morning. Of course, I do not really regret this awful experience. It was… educational.
But the Undergraduate Research Forum had successfully mixed up a host of students from all colleges into sustained, in-depth debate wound up in an air of familiarity between us all which a lot of students at UAL complain is generally missing. We are rather segregated between our colleges, and it is a shame. I hope the forum recurs in the future.
My presentation was performative as well as descriptive of my methods and research. Brief recourses to DNA, neural networks and cellular automata were broken up with audio and video clips of Rosa and Lawrence readings interspersed between my empathetic grievances with their situation, and culminated in an invitation to listeners to participate.
The presentation was really well received and comments suggested that the commentators solidly understood the gist of what the project is doing. I distributed the flyers I had made detailing how to participate online.
MA Fine Art Interviews
I have survived through four MA Fine Art interviews so far, and the experiences have varied enormously.
First of all, this is a much higher success rate than when I was applying for the BA, where only one of my applications scraped an interview. So being invited in the first place was very encouraging. I went into each interview with what I am content was a healthy frame of mind: I went in with the intention of getting to know whoever was sitting on the panel and seeing if there would be any “sparks”. I didn’t want to bend myself this way or that to impress anyone, but rather be admitted because the institution likes me and what I do.
The Royal College of Art didn’t appear to like me at all. I had applied for the Performance pathway, having myself come to find that my whole oeuvre is steeped in performativity, whether in drawing, writing, video or live interaction. I want to explore the living elements of the work I make, and it seemed quite obvious to me that of all the programmes available, this was the most relevant. The tutors on the panel however, didn’t appear to have the slightest notion of a connection between my work and performance. “How is this Fine Art?” Interrupted R at some point early in my description of the Unborn Lovers project. I was ineloquent and wordily stumbling through the nature of my art experiment. We were looking at a silent video playing scenes from The Cockpit theatre behind me. The question threw me off because, 1. It seemed entirely irrelevant and fundamentally uninteresting, and 2. I couldn’t understand what was so non-Fine Art about it to conceive what prompted the question in the first place. I didn’t know whether to respond by tackling my boredom with the question, or explain what the project was not (e.g. it’s clearly not theatre, not science, not prose and not … I don’t know, a religious ceremony?), in order to conclude “so I guess Fine Art will do fine to describe this play of aesthetics, performativity, literature and duration, etc”. I opted for something akin to the latter, but was aware that my interrogator was preparing an offensive, and inwardly braced myself for a defensive. Before I could articulate my retaliation, he stopped me short at “well it’s not theatre-” to point at the screen and say, bluntly, “but it’s in a theatre”. He was dragging us into an arbitrary taxonomic debate that I then tried to spin back into more interesting things by beginning to explain the variability in readings and venues, the project’s encouragement of communal responsibility over fictional characters, the anticipated redundancy of my authorial role and the idea of emergent agents spun out of a communal network. From this point on, R spoke more than anybody, including myself, during my own interview, which rapidly turned into a situation in which he was lecturing me on how unsuitable I was for a place on the programme. With incredibly pretentious gusto, he lavished the complexities of practicing performance at the RCA, and shook his head pityingly saying that the way I was speaking was ‘naïve’, ‘studentish’ and ‘typically undergraduate’. He was being rude, but he was also possibly about to give me, assumedly, some constructive criticism, so I filtered the brashness and honed in on his words, preparing to take them into full consideration and either become convinced by them or detect a misunderstanding – either way, I would take up the criticism and return it to him in my own form. But the more I gazed intently at him and focused on his sentences, the more I began to doubt that even he knew entirely what he was saying. It was largely incomprehensible, and served mostly to emphasise in tone and ceremony that the course was challenging, admitted only the most capable of candidates, and required so much “intellectual” activity, all of which, it seemed he was implying, was beyond me. He made his case via various rather arbitrary arguments, where he sometimes even repeated something I had said earlier as if he were the first to say it, and as if this thing I had in fact raised myself were a policy that placed the school at odds with my practice. The other three panelists were almost entirely silent during the whole interview. It began to dawn on me that perhaps my interviewer was stalling, and filling the air with a succession of contradicting attacks and incoherent salads of jargon that I recognised as a string of words, but made no sense in combination, merely to exhaust the remaining time. I couldn’t think of a reason why that would benefit anybody, but could not help thinking that that was what was happening, because there was an embarrassing mutual awareness that he was insisting upon dominating the conversation rather than getting to know me. Occasionally I interrupted him to fight back, but often found myself at a loss for words; so bewildered was I by the random course he kept taking: from internal university politics to in-depth elaborations on the new policies on loans and funding (i.e. all the most uninteresting topics that are peripherally related to art but never actually concerning art or making at all).
What the hell was going on? What was worse was when I began to realise, from the panel’s vague references to the performance programme at the RCA, that they seemed to have no notion of how working in media such as drawing or writing could have anything to do with performance. I hoped this was not true, but I began to think this might be the source of our misunderstanding. In fact, I developed a distinct feeling (feelings are all I could go on, because nothing was being said to me directly but in the wildest of unnecessary circumventions), that the course was rather old fashioned, and imagined performance as limited to the medium of the body, with a penchant for the minimalist, slow paced and nonverbal body-to-space interaction of the 70s. Nothing wrong with a performance carried out using the body, a minimalist aesthetic or no words: but I felt I was being deemed unfit here because my use of words and text threw me into the category of literature and theatre, and my drawing into representation.
They then described how unusual their studio space was: that it consisted of a white empty space in which they were not allowed to bring anything but their bodies. It seemed like a site at which to convene and just “be”, or whatever, which is all well and good, but only fed into my feeling that the RCA’s notion of performance was not updated and expanded to qualify multiple media as capable of leveraging the constitutive power of performativity, liveness or presence. I only received vague answers to questions like, “so, is this space something like a project space?” with responses such as, “kind of… it’s just a sort of space, like a gallery that you need to book. A very popular space that the whole college is intent on using”.
“…Are you talking about the Dyson gallery?” I said with confusion evidently printed on my face. Everyone nodded in the affirmative. Why did they call it their studio, and why go through all these strange vague descriptions of daily practice and the mystery of their working space when all they meant was the general college gallery? I felt they were messing with me.
I am going into such detail about this interview because something happened in the meantime which I had not expected. Even overlooking R’s rude attacks, I had early on in the interview entirely lost the desire to study at this place. This was a very surprising and unsettling feeling, and in that I instinctively found it untrustworthy and suppressed it. I had been proud on receiving an interview invitation, and thought I would be walking into a cutting-edge, energetic sort of place that was more contemporary than I was. R’s questions indicated to me that I found the way he thought about art to be kind of… irrelevant. And if he could dominate the course as he had dominated my interview, I hardly wished to spend two years listening to his outdated lecturing. There is no chance that I will be offered a place. Before I left he said, “have you applied other places?”.
“Good. You’ll hear from us very soon”.
But even though I understood early on that I had no chance of getting on board, it was most surprising to me how bitterly mutual the distaste was. R had a distaste for me, and I had a distaste for him. The silent student panelists looked like minions and the second tutor, V, looked at me apologetically. They were a circus. How to proceed in an interview when you have in the meantime developed such abhorrence for the place? I decided to merely fight it out with dignity and leave with faith in my art in spite of all that hammering.
R’s monologue about governmental tuition fee loan laws came to an end and he asked, perking up, “have you any questions for us?”. I looked at the four of them, rather exhausted and searched for something to say. I ended up asking about the Performance research degrees and whether MA students typically stayed on to undertake one. This instigated another onslaught of repetitive meaninglessness. Rather than telling me what the PhD programme was like, what kind of research was undertaken, or just basic facts about it, he delved into how the PhD certainly was not for everybody, it is a very serious programme, undertaken only by very serious and highly intelligent students. Indeed, he has supervised a great many doctorates. A small section of these had “demonstrated a high degree of intelligence”. My heart sank, I had finally lost all desire to be in the room. He repeated this word, “intelligence”. It was all he could say about the theses. Not what they had discovered, not what the works themselves developed, but that they had evidenced some intrinsic “intelligence” that the student had “brought with them”. And this was to be valued above all.
I had just about the strength of will to utter, “No. That is enough I think”. The four of them glanced at each other and uttered a one syllable laugh. As I was getting up, the mood swayed back into good sport. R sighed heavily as after a good day’s work. He had neatly packaged off the last applicant; the files could be signed, closed up in neat folders and tapped on their way. There was a table full of half eaten doughnuts and evaporated coffee cups. I felt heavy inside of myself. These were the people in power. I was expecting so much more nobility in people in such positions. They had missed the opportunity to get to know a student, and had instead wasted some time. That benefitted nobody.
I left, and later I would realise that I actually had fought very well and upheld myself in the face of attacks. But as I closed the door behind me, thinking I would tour the campus a little on my own, I found myself utterly drained of energy, and a desire to cry welled up inside of me. Conveniently, there was a toilet across the corridor, and I spent time in a cubicle to calm down. I was surprised and embarrassed that I was crying in a toilet cubicle. I wondered if I was such a softie that R’s insults and impoliteness was enough to break me. I also felt ashamed at the thought that I was by far not the first to leave an RCA interview crying, that we were a stream of rejects unable to handle our inadequacy. But it was more that that. Actually, it wasn’t the insults in themselves at all. It was that their group behaviour as panelists represented for me some greater universal injustice. All of a sudden, the whole world looked bitter. R’s arguments were so shallow, how did he end up in a senior position at one of the most prestigious art institutions? Why would you have in you, as a teacher and as an advocate of the arts, the desire to extinguish somebody before hearing them out, like that? My expectations of the institution as a magical place of work and innovation came crashing down and it was this confusion that made me react so strongly.
I compared the place to Kingston University (at which I have now been offered a place) which a week or so earlier, I had toured, guided by C. I remember getting the opposite feeling there: I absolutely loved the studios, students, pedagogic policy, tutors, technicians, facilities, gallery: it seemed like a fantasy oasis way out in South London and I wondered how I could like a place so much without having really heard anything of it before applying there.
The other interview experiences were mostly wonderful, and therefore warrant much less description. At Central Saint Martins I found I could just be myself. I sat with M and L in their office adjacent to modest MA-only studios in Archway. I tried to reign in disparate aspects of my practice that I find important when considered collectively, within the allotted time, and soon found I was pretty much blabbing away. They were politely listening and not saying much as I spoke, only intervening with the occasional question that attempted to gauge what I was interested in. We spoke of the distributed person, and M asked if I had heard of Deleuze’s notion of haecceity. I think she said it had something to do with the manner in which a new thing is constituted when disparate things are brought together, and she used us as an example. In making that statement, she cast herself a sort of spell on the three of us, and something new was constituted in our midst. When she finally said, “I think we have a good idea of your practice now, do you have any questions for us?” I felt the abrupt end of the interview approach, and felt slightly shy all of a sudden about having talked so much. I said I knew I had questions, but that my babbling had kind of set me off course. In a moment I became focused again, and realised I had plenty of questions about what I would be able to do with an MA at CSM. All of their answers were satisfying, but in particular, I felt they would be enthusiastic about supporting the ideas I was suggesting. Later I would run into a few articles on academia.edu by M, and found out I really enjoyed her writing. At the end of the interview, I was offered a place on the spot, to my utter surprise, and on the way home felt very pleased with my experience with the place, and conscious that it was probably also the most financially viable option for me.
Next up was Middlesex University. I turned up there with my dad who was visiting me at the time, and waited in the cafe, where I was told to meet F, on whose work M had actually written. She had given me the wrong date, and we had to reschedule. She was very apologetic, but already having visited Middlesex, I felt something cold about the place. Something about the architecture estranged me, I wasn’t sure I would feel drawn to come here and study or make things.
When I returned a couple of days later, I had a most unusual interview with F. She was munching on some rice cakes and casually telling me about the course, before showing me around. Something in her spirit seemed deflated, and it was affecting her ability to sell the course to me. It seemed almost as though she wasn’t too keen on the place. All this took an hour, and as I was taken through bewildering corridors and winding rooms of studio spaces, I wondered when or if at all I would be interviewed. A little small talk in the lift, a little drifting through the studios. I didn’t have much to say. I tried to take it in, and imagine myself making myself at home here. But I couldn’t see any work that excited me, and actually, a lot of it put me off a little. F was stopped every ten minutes for a question or an update by a colleague or student, clearly she is a busy person. There was nothing wrong with the place but I somehow didn’t feel drawn to it.
She took me back to a little room with a couple of computers and logged in. We sat around the computer and she started googling my name to get something of mine up on the screen. I laughed at the results and explained that there is one other Katarina Rankovic out in the universe, with a similar complexion, age and internet popularity as I. To make matters worse she is also in a creative discipline; a pianist, and we intermittently take over the top hit from each other over time. She is my unacquainted rival. People online sometimes mix us up; I remember a Youtube comment on one of my videos exclaiming flatteringly, “You are so multitalented Katarina! What with the drawings, and the readings and the piano playing and singing!” And so was I recently tagged in one of the other Katarina’s interviews with a culture magazine. Our feud continues.
I took over the computer and opened up my site and a couple of tabs linking to my Talking Drawing channel and Vernacular Spectacular series. Clicking about and talking, I felt we were just hanging out. In fact, the chat lasted a little over an hour, which felt glorious for me, because I could just delve into all that interested me without cramming it in, from the drawings, to the video performance, to the recent “scripting for agency”. She’d intercede with comments and ideas and references, and I’d return those with further references. We would just Google these artists and say, “check this out, you might like him…” Each took notes of what the other was referring to, it was really fun! Eventually she said she “would love to offer me a place, but that I had to think about what I wanted from my MA and decide on a suitable place”. She wasn’t selling Middlesex to me, and I can’t say I was bought. But I suddenly realised that all this interviewing had actually turned into a useful platform for networking. I felt like I wanted to maintain relationships with C, M, L and F in the future, regardless of who I would end up studying with. I don’t know how realistic it is, but I felt at least that I knew my mileu a little better. As with the distaste felt between R and I, I feel the positivity in these other interviews was mutually experienced. It’s about finding a good match; people you’d like to work with and who’d like to work with you. I am now only waiting to hear from Glasgow and Bergen Academy of Art and Design, but feel compelled to stay in London.
Daria Martin & Lucy Beech
Daria Martin showed a fascinating second film to her trilogy based on research into “mirror-touch synesthesia” at Maureen Paley. Lucy Beech had her performance Human Relations staged on the same night, which I was keen on seeing since I saw her solo show at The Tetley in Leeds.
Martin published a series of emails in which mirror-touch synesthetes describe their symptoms and living conditions to her. These were fascinating to me, because the condition is characterised by the synesthete feeling heightened empathy. When they see another person engaged in an activity or experiencing something, they feel as though it is happening to them to visceral degrees. If they watch somebody eating an ice cream, they might feel the sweet taste and icy lather on their tongue, and if they see somebody falling down, they might feel a sharp graze on their knee as though it had been them.
A film by Lawrence Abu Hamdan at the British Art Show this year presented a sci fi narrative in which we learn of a new technological device, that when inserted into the mouth, channels a feed of emotions experienced by others into one’s own nervous system. The invention is shown to have dystopian political effects and becomes an instrument of control. The premise was interesting, but tackled its speculations too head-on and literally for me to quite enjoy it as an artwork. Here I was at Maureen Paley, however, discovering that some people are born with this peculiar ability/disability and actually experience so viscerally what they observe others experiencing.
Martin’s film situates a household drama involving an ambiguous mother-son/lover-lover relationship and a sensible looking female visitor (also with a maternal presence about her) in an unusual house of mirrors, colours and tingling sounds. The boy and the older woman share the house and what look like mildly erotic encounters. But we learn that both the boy and the woman are mirror-touch synesthetes; in their dialogue they describe, for instance, how they felt the grating texture of brick when they saw another running their hand along a wall, or what it was like to “be” the crying baby being shaken/rocked in a buggy. Perhaps they have chosen to live together because of their common affliction or power. The film is mysterious, advancing, and contains a possibility for something ominous to surface. Throughout the film, the pair carry out operations for one another, and then it is interesting to consider how the other experiences these actions. The boy slices and sugars a grapefruit and passes it to the woman. The woman lays her hands upon the boy’s hands and guides them into tearing up his own drawing into satisfactory equal strips. In another scene, the boy lays his hand upon the woman’s this time, over a serene tea-time with the disapproving guest, guiding forkfuls of quaint birthday cake into the woman’s mouth. What is interesting about this is that it explores paradoxes that might occur when coupling two mirror-touch synesthetes. When they merge and engage in synchronistic activities, do they not instigate some kind of empathetic never ending feedback loop; he feels what she feels, she feels what he feels, he feels her feeling him, she feels him feeling her feel him… what would that be like? Their games confound both our and the visitor-character’s understanding.
The final scene ends with the boy and the woman tweaking the knobs on a pair of ladder-like constructions in their fantastical garden, attached to which are not steps, but sheets of mirror. They twist the mirror rectangles on either side of their own “ladder”, and look at each other through the gaps of their shutters. As they twist the mirrors this way and that, the camera, viewing their faces reflected on different sheets of mirror, shows us their faces combined: his eyes fused with her nose wrinkling into a smile. They are playing another game with their condition, merging their experience and creating paradoxes in the space of their mirror-touch synesthesia. The film was visually and aurally immersive and distinctly beautiful.
On seeing further work by Lucy Beech I think she is becoming one of my favourite artists. She has picked up on a prevalent aesthetic thread pertaining so fundamentally to our times that it is easily overlooked in its normality. And this is her discovery, she has unearthed an invisible yet ubiquitous feeling permeating the 21st century Western world before we had a name for it, and thematizes it. It is then to her artistic merit how she handles and works this aesthetic – the aesthetic itself is her medium. The corporate rhetoric, pageantry, uniform, ceremony and apparatuses: suits, motivational speeches, clip-on microphones, state-of-the art office furniture and British charisma, she works these things as if they are clay.
The reworkings are often humorous, with a very subtly violent undertone that is beautifully employed and not ideologically forced through the work. The works are only politicized by the interest they take in themselves, not in broadcasting judgements. They unearth and convulse observations of corporate and community-organised worlds, the formal everyday, restaging them in mangled forms that estranges viewers from the integral aesthetics of the commonplace that is so ubiquitous, it all too easily eludes categorisation. I can’t wait to see more!
A Symposium a Degree Show Work?
So a few days ago, I was sitting with my dad on the tube wondering how to approach the Rosa-Lawrence project afresh. Degree Show is approaching, and it’s worth brainstorming a bit to see if there are entirely different approaches on offer. What I presented at Interim is important, that is, to provide a platform for participation somehow, but somehow the way I set it up doesn’t quite get me excited. I seem to be locked in the practice of going about visiting couples and filming them read the script. All this is very well, but it is happening too infrequently and I need to hone in on the issue of the character’s autonomy from diverse angles, I feel. How can I shake things up? Is it possible to think of accessing my own project from a different angle? Could the piece be performed in a way I have not yet imagined?
How about a flash mob? People timed to pair up in a city square somewhere and spontaneously begin reading the love poem aloud in synchrony amidst bewildered onlookers. Perhaps I could stage a flash mob at Degree Show?
At the Undergraduate Research Forum some members of the audience agreed that there was something rather haunting about audio clips (without video) of couples reading the text. Something could be done with this, to touch on the implication of “ghostliness” in Rosa and Lawrence. Perhaps I could install audio readings under benches, with voices emanating from sites where lovers might typically rest and talk. In the lift, in the corridor, by the tree in the college courtyard?
My dad had the interesting idea of, at a theatrical venue like The Cockpit, staging the performance such that the audience would read the text to me, the entire audience reading at me. Perhaps the females in the room would read for Rosa, and the males, Lawrence. I’d sit on stage and listen. I wasn’t sure about the part concerning me. I wouldn’t know what it would mean for Rosa and Lawrence to be reading themselves so forcefully at me. Part of me likes the idea, part of me is put off by it. But I loved the notion of the audience reading in unison. However, the most interesting derivative idea of this suggestion for me was to write an entirely new script, unrelated to the ones previously written, in which the name of the game would be precisely that the audience read it out to me. How terribly exciting to begin writing such a text! It’s a brilliant challenge to pose to the writer-me, who so likes to play with the future of text. What could I embed in the script, that would become particularly pronounced and surprising when enacted by a crowd at me? I’m going to let this one brew with me until I find the moment to sit down and try to write.
But Rosa and Lawrence – how could they be present at on occasion like Degree Show in a meaningful way, how could they create affect and at the same time stir thoughts about agency in the university context? It occurred to me that it would be interesting to somehow get input from experts in the variety of other disciplines that the project flirts with: complexity theory, artificial intelligence, genetics, virology, digital studies, theatre, philosophy…
What if I invited responses, as did Nikolaus Gansterer in that book I looked at some months ago, “Drawing a Hypothesis”, in which he invited responses from interdisciplinary friends and acquaintances to a series of diagrams he drew without any referential meaning? He collected essays from these different perspectives, that forged meaning out of cryptic drawings. My project is perhaps more hypothesis-driven – I have this idea that repeated enactments and interpretative escalations of the Rosa + Lawrence script might give rise to the characters’ agency, and the work leverages the constitutive power of performance to ‘run’ my experiment and yield results of some kind. This hypothesis is based on, and therefore by proxy probes, theories I have really been sucked into concerning the distributed person, relations between substrata and superstrata in complex systems, the emergence of meaning through “difference and repetition”, etc. It attempts to take seriously these notions in an endeavour to engineer autonomous entities that approach identities we associate with human beings.
So how about inviting some sort of response out of the pool of disciplines I have borrowed from in designing this experiment, and of which I have based my reasoning? I don’t know what a geneticist’s response might be. Maybe she would write an essay, or make a diagram or give a talk.
It then occurred to me that to organise a kind of symposium that collected a small group of some such people into the same room. My Degree Show work could be an event, a discussion, a reflection. It would begin with a reading, read by two actors, perhaps celebrity actors. They would have never read the text before. They are on stage, spotlit, reading it to an audience and to themselves for the first time. A silent split screen film projected visually chattering in the background. When they finish, the actors join a panel of some three participating scientists/philosophers/critics each armed with a discipline-specific response of their own to the project. After my introductory keynote (something like the performative presentation I did for the Undergraduate Research Forum), the experts present their responses in succession. This is followed by a panel discussion in which I might ask the artificial intelligence engineer how we might perform a Turing Test on Rosa and Lawrence, or the geneticist about her notion of the relation between scripting and determinism. Audience participation would be welcome throughout, and we’d get a whole debate going, which I am confident will be fruitful based on the discussions I’ve had around the project previously with tutors and students in tutorials. People end up commenting things I’d never imagined, and I’d very much like the ideas to take off, run loose from my hands and become living components of the two emergent agents.
The idea excites me, and my instinct is to start thinking ambitiously: an accommodating venue like the college Theatre, involving celebrity actors with some background in theatre and critical engagement with their art, scientists of renown and great expertise, and maybe even the involvement of peripheral components dotted around the college in tandem with the main event.
The event would be documented in a quality video recording and displayed on subsequent days of the show beside other archival material. Perhaps I’d get more expert responses in textual form than I could get panel members for the event, and could collect the texts into a publication like Gansterer’s?
Start ambitious, start networking, see what happens and who is on board. “Who” is the main component here. Then comes “Where”, and finally “How”. These tasks also happen to be listed in order of difficulty. Once I begin feeling out which avenues are hopeless, and which are worth pursuing, then I can begin managing my expectations and ambition. Actually, the idea feels like the right amount of challenge for me at the minute. It will require a lot of me, and force me into territory I have not explored before, but some version of my idea is within practical reach. I most likely can pull something of the sort off, and there is no doubt that the learning required of me to make the attempt will be incredibly useful.